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Taking a big chance on Vegas reality series

Is Las Vegas mainly about being smart and making money, or getting wild and losing inhibitions?

That's the question producer Mark Burnett fails to answer in the pilot for his new Fox reality series The Casino, premiering tonight. Burnett needs to figure it out fast, or instead of having another mega-hit like Survivor (CBS) or The Apprentice (NBC), he's going to wind up with another version of his least successful series, The Restaurant (NBC), on his hands.

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No one's talking flop here. Even at his less-than-best, Burnett makes compelling television that clicks with hot spots in the human psyche. But there are shows that click, and then there are shows that light up the psyche like a Fourth of July fireworks display, as The Apprentice did this spring.

As laid out tonight, The Casino's driving narrative is supposed to be the tale of two 34-year-old dot.com millionaires with no gaming-industry experience who plunk down $225 million to take over and try to revive the legendary Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in downtown Las Vegas. As Fox describes it, Tim Poster and Tom Breitling "assume ownership, roll the dice and take the biggest gamble of their lives."

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Only it doesn't feel that daring.

Burnett is brilliant at understanding the symbolic possibilities of television. In The Apprentice, in which contestants vied for a $250,000-a-year job as Donald Trump's apprentice, he managed to depict Trump Towers in Manhattan as a Camelot of commerce.

Beyond the job, what the prize symbolized was the winner's taking up residence as a new knight at King Donald's Round Table.

But the symbolism doesn't work out that neatly and eloquently in The Casino. The opening shot of the series is from the outskirts of the city. It shows the famed Las Vegas Strip shimmering in the distance. That's similar to the way Manhattan was photographed in The Apprentice - as this great and shining presence that the protagonists, as outsiders, are about to engage in combat.

But Poster isn't an outsider at all. He grew up in Las Vegas, working for his uncle, a professional gambler.

Furthermore, neither Poster nor Breitling brings much heat to The Casino. In a telephone press conference Friday, Burnett compared the two to actors Joe Pesci and Andy Garcia, but that comparison doesn't come across on the screen. Poster and Breitling are neither so appealing nor, as is often the case with reality TV players, so appalling that we can't take our eyes off them.

In trying to fill that void, Burnett quickly sends the series chasing off on subplots featuring guests of the Golden Nugget, such as "The Frat Pack," who rent a suite and throw a party at which they hope to help one guy in the group lose his virginity.

This story line ends with the virginal young man on the floor licking whipped cream off an otherwise naked woman.

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Another story line about a gambler who thinks he is a ladies' man features the high roller inviting someone he thinks is a woman up to his room after they meet at a blackjack table.

Neither narrative has much to do with Poster or Breitling - in fact, it is easy to forget about the so-called stars of the series altogether.

Las Vegas is, of course, both about getting rich and getting wild. But it's never about getting rich the Ben Franklin way - by using hard work and smarts. But that's the story line that the series seems to want to tell.

Las Vegas is the abrogation of our Puritan work ethic and all the baggage that comes with it.

Maybe Burnett can find a way to resolve the tension between the two faces of The Casino during its 13-week run. Network censors are only going to let you show so much whipped cream.

The Casino

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When: Tonight at 9

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In brief: Reality TV tries to go Viva Las Vegas.


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